By Emma Cline. Penguin Random House, 368 pp, hardcover
Girls will be girls, even when they’re part of the brainwashed coterie of a homicidal cult leader. So proves The Girls, Emma Cline’s stylish, psychologically on point debut novel following a group reminiscent of Charles Manson’s Family in the faded California summer of 1969.
Cline’s narrator is Evie, who alternates between the present-day perspective of a timid 50-something haunted by her past, and the 1969 life of a lonely, rebellious 14-year-old navigating all the familiar struggles of teenage girlhood, including a divorced mother and a distant best friend. Teen Evie, like many girls, is particularly attuned to her physical presence and the sense of being watched; as her adult self observes, “I dressed to provoke love, tugging my neckline lower, settling a wistful stare on my face whenever I went out in public that implied many deep and promising thoughts, should anyone happen to glance over.” But Evie’s real existence is one of constantly being ignored—that is, until Suzanne shows up. When she spots Suzanne and her friends in a park, “sleek and thoughtless as sharks breaching the water”, she’s immediately taken.
Not long after, Evie finds herself visiting the ranch where Suzanne and the girls reside with the creepy Russell, whose manipulative charms will be familiar to anybody who has ever heard of Charles Manson, while Suzanne seems obviously inspired by Susan Atkins, aka Manson girl Sexy Sadie. The hinge to reality makes the characters particularly fascinating. Evie, so needy for attention, is an easy target for Russell’s predation—but it’s Evie’s connection with Suzanne that truly roots her to the group. Under Suzanne’s gaze, Evie finally feels seen.
Cline’s portrayal of what goes on in a teen girl’s mind—and in the rueful memories of the woman she grows up to be—is painfully accurate. And yet, by a point, the constant narration of Evie’s objectification—“how it felt to be a desired thing”—becomes a little tiring. Still, Cline’s careful rendering of Evie’s path to the very precipice of evil is transfixing, and juxtaposed with the gauzy, nostalgic mood typical of coming-of-age stories, the dissonance is striking. Murder is the worst sort of initiation into adulthood and sex and knowing, and the most frightening part of this bildungsroman is how Evie’s summer search for identity strands her forever in the terrible past.